AMA Transcript - The AMA has written to thousands of doctors, encouraging victims of sexual harassment to speak out

10 Mar 2015

Transcript: AMA President, A/Prof Brian Owler, ABC NewsRadio, 9 March 2015


Subject: The AMA has written to thousands of doctors, encouraging victims of sexual harassment to speak out



LAURA TCHILINGUIRIAN: As career advice for young female doctors, it was nothing if not confronting: succumb to unwanted sexual advances from colleagues rather than jeopardise your career by complaining. The remarks were made in a speech by Sydney surgeon Dr Gabrielle McMullin, who says filing a report about sexual harassment will destroy a female doctor's career prospects. Speaking to the ABC earlier today, Dr McMullin said she'd been stunned at the support she'd received from other women in the medical profession.

[Start of excerpt]

GABRIELLE MCMULLIN: I'm amazed by the response I got - I have been overwhelmed by positive feedback. I've had people thanking me for speaking out. I've had people telling me even more terrible stories about their experiences, and so vindicating what I'm saying. Everything I've received personally has been overwhelmingly positive.

[End of excerpt]

LAURA TCHILINGUIRIAN: But there's also been an angry backlash from some doctors, who say Dr McMullin's comments are appalling and irresponsible and she should be deregistered. The Australian medical profession [sic] has also condemned her comments and has now written to doctors urging those who've experienced sexual harassment to speak out. Associate Professor Brian Owler is the president of the AMA, and he joins us now. Brian, are you among those who think that Dr McMullin should be deregistered or in some way sanctioned for her remarks?


BRIAN OWLER: No, look, I don't think we need to take the matter that far. But I don’t think in this day and age that it is correct advice to say to young female professionals, whether they're in medicine or any other workplace for that matter, that they should keep quiet about these issues. And the answer has to be that we have to tackle this problem head-on and the only way we're ever going to be able to do that is if people speak up. And it's up to all in the profession to make sure that we look after our - particularly our junior colleagues, but in fact all of our colleagues, to make sure that these incidents don't happen and this culture is not allowed to continue.


LAURA TCHILINGUIRIAN: Her views of the level of sexism in the medical profession are confronting. Were you surprised by those allegations? Or had you heard reports of such a culture existing?


BRIAN OWLER: Look, I think there are certainly cases where it does occur, there's no doubt about that. And I think they're often comments that are made, you know, sometimes just a matter of offhand comments, but then there are more serious cases which Dr McMullin outlined. I think there's a whole range of issues, and in some particular cases, I think a culture that does exist, and we need to break that down.


I think it's important to say that the AMA does not support, in any way shape or form, any behaviour that bullies, harasses, or intimidates colleagues - whether it's on the basis of gender or on the basis of sexuality, race, or any other personal attribute. And I think we need to make sure that we have safe and protected workplaces - whether it's in a hospital or whether it's out in the community practices. And that's the sort of culture that we should aim to promote.


LAURA TCHILINGUIRIAN: So is this a wake-up call to organisations like the AMA that there is a real problem out there despite whatever processes have been put in place to combat it?


BRIAN OWLER: Well, I think it is and I think that's the positive thing to come out of the comments of Dr McMullin, that this issue has been raised in terms of consciousness of the profession.


I think that is a good thing, and that is why I took the step this morning of writing to all of the members of the AMA, to say - and make clear our position - but also to encourage them to speak up.


Now, if there is an issue, usually it's the employer, which is often an area health service or hospital that's the employer of the particular doctor.  Or in trainees it's the case - it will be the College that is the appropriate body to handle the complaint.


But the AMA's role is often to represent individuals or members that find themselves in difficult circumstances and we do that not uncommonly. And of course if anyone is out there that feels threatened or intimidated then they should certainly contact the AMA for support and advice.


LAURA TCHILINGUIRIAN: So the letter from the AMA asks those in the profession who've suffered some sort of sexual harassment to come forward. But why would they, given that part of the allegations that have been made is that those who speak up effectively find themselves without future career prospects?


BRIAN OWLER: Well, that's the assertion that she referred to that may be one of the issues. But I think we need to make sure that we do put in process the systems that allow people to be protected. We've got to make sure that particularly our junior colleagues feel like they are safe, and they are protected, and they can speak out. And we don't want a situation where people are frightened to speak out and that's the, I guess, the objection that I've taken to Dr McMullin's comments, that you know, promoting, I guess an environment where people feel fearful about speaking out doesn't solve the problem.


We've got to get people to confront the problem and the only way that people become aware that there is an issue, that there is a problem that we have to tackle, is when people speak to their colleagues about it. And I think that's what we need to encourage, and people can do that anonymously or confidentially and we'll try and do whatever's possible to make sure that we rectify the situation.


LAURA TCHILINGUIRIAN: Thanks very much for joining us.


BRIAN OWLER: It's a pleasure, thank you.



9 March 2015


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